Thursday 11 January 2024

The Northern Waterthrush in Essex 10th January 2024

On a wet Tuesday afternoon by Higgo's pool at Lower Moors Reserve on St Mary's, Isles of Scilly, way back in October 2011, I stood with Badger and Richard and watched a Northern Waterthrush. We  were very lucky as it had been highly elusive since its arrival in mid September and it was by sheer luck we saw it and really well too. It was the seventh ever to be seen in Britain and although it remained until the 4th of April 2012 it continued to be elusive and many birders who travelled to see it failed. 

Fast forward twelve years to the present and the eighth  Northern Waterthrush to be seen in Britain was discovered by a birder in his garden at Heybridge which lies in the parish of Maldon in the county of Essex. Twelve years of waiting for another waterthrush to arrive was now over, which meant that the Heybridge bird was going to be immensely popular and many people would travel to see it as it was easily accessible, being on the mainland and not as all bar two have been in the past, on The Isles of Scilly.

The seven currently accepted records of Northern Waterthrush in Britain are as follows:

1958 St Agnes   Isles of Scilly 30th September-12th October
1968 Tresco       Isles of Scilly  3rd -7th October
1982 Bryher       Isles of Scilly  20th September- 4th October
1988                   Gibralter Point Lincolnshire 22nd-23rd October
1989 St Agnes    Isles of Scilly 29th-30th August
1996                   Portland Bird Observatory Dorset 14th -17th October
2011 St Mary's   Isles of Scilly 16th September- 4th April 2012

They are not a thrush as we know it but a warbler, marginally larger than a Willow Warbler. The only connection to a thrush is its streaked underparts reminiscent of the spotting on a Song Thrush's breast. They breed from west and central Alaska across Canada to the Atlantic coast and the northwest and northeast of the USA and winter from Mexico to Colombia and Venezuela, northern Brazil, northern Ecuador and northeast Peru.Some also winter in Bermuda and The Caribbean.

Following the unprecedented influx of North American warblers into Britain in late September of last year, Mark my twitching pal has been telling me ad infinitum that he is convinced there would be other rare American birds subsequently found in Britain and he has been proved right.This bird could quite easily have been here since last September, undiscovered until now.

This latest New World warbler to be found here, having been seen and photographed briefly on the 3rd of January, then promptly disappeared only to be rediscovered at a small creek in the adjacent Heybridge Marshes. It appeared to have set up a winter territory based around the creek and the surrounding scrub of reeds, brambles and hawthorn bushes. In North America they normally inhabit thickets near to water and have a preference to feed on the ground by streams so the creek at Heybridge and surrounding marshland has obviously proved ideal.

I spoke to Mark and we both agreed that as we had already each seen a Northern Waterthrush in Britain we would leave going to see this one at Heybridge until the inevitable excitement and large crowds died down. 

Various comments from birders we know who had gone to see the waterthrush suggested that it was not a particularly pleasant experience viewing the bird due to noisy crowds, restricted viewing and residents of the adjacent housing estate being hostile about birders parking their cars outside their houses and allegedly causing congestion. None of this is new these days and is accepted as part and parcel of any large twitch, especially on the mainland.

Reports following the bird's discovery indicated it was proving to be typically elusive and it required  much patience and stoicism in order to see it. Many who travelled to see it did not succeed at their first attempt  and there seemed no routine to or guarantee of the bird's appearance at the creek but gradually over the subsequent days it became apparent that the bird could be best seen at dawn, albeit in near darkness when it came to feed along the edges of the creek. It would remain here for up to half an hour and then disappear before randomly returning, maybe once or twice during the day. It would then re-appear at the creek at dusk before going to roost.

I spoke to Mark and suggested we go sometime in the week as the crowd might be less than on a weekend and we settled on Wednesday the 10th of January but as is the way of things an  unforeseen commitment for Mark meant we could not go together so I made the trip on my own.

I knew I had to be at the creek before dawn to secure a good position on the bank where you stand to overlook the creek. This required me to leave my home at no later than 4.00am in the morning to make the two and a half hour journey to Heybridge. Dawn being around 7am. I had done some revision about where to park in Heybridge due to the repeated requests to not park in any of the residential roads which are adjacent to the creek. I found an industrial estate nearby where parking would not be a problem.

More than a little bleary I set off from home. An ice cold blast of wind hitting my face as I left the house set me to wondering if this was really such a good idea. All went well until the curse of a nightime motorway closure, of which many a twitcher is now all too familiar, reared its unwelcome head.The M25 was closed between two junctions on my route to Essex so I had to make a diversion via the North Circular with all its confusing speed restrictions, average speed checks and plethora of speed cameras.Somehow I emerged from it all, well as far as I know, having not transgressed the law and proceeded east towards Heybridge.

I had targetted Bates Road on Quayside Industrial Estate as a place to park.Tired and weary after the drive it was a bit of a nightmare in the dark locating precisely where to leave the car and then where to go to find the creek but salvation was at hand as, while standing on a corner wondering which direction to take, a birder's car drew up.I enquired if he knew where to go and thankfully he did as he was making a second trip to see the Northern Waterthrush having failed to see it yesterday.

I waited for him to get his gear together and we walked a short way to turn off onto a track of no more than fifty metres that brought us to the top of a bank where we could stand and once dawn arose hopefully see the Northern Waterthrush in the small creek that lay in front of us.

We were the first to arrive which was not surpriisng as it was only 6.15 am and totally dark apart from the lights from the Quayside Industrial Estate away to our left where I had parked.

We whiled away the time chatting or at least my new found colleague did. He told me he was an amateur astronomer and pointed out various constellations and planets in the night sky as I tried to keep awake, struggling with the sub zero temperature and wondering just what I was doing here.

By 7am we had been joined by others, not many, and stood in silent expectation as the light slowly permeated the night sky and the waters of the creek became more apparent. 

The small creek in the early morning, favoured by the waterthrush 

There was no sign of the waterthrush but Robins were now ticking  in the brambles or singing under the streetlights while a couple of Mallard swam in the creek. Around ten minutes after seven someone to our left saw a brief movement, on the left side of the creek, right down by the water's edge. A tiny dark bird was restlessly moving around and fluttering above the water's edge and dead reed matter.  

It had to be and it was. 

The Northern Waterthrush!

It was endlessly active, perching on half submerged vegetation or flicking over the water picking minute items from it.The long creamy supercilia and pale, heavily streaked underparts were just about visible in my bins and slowly more detail of its plumage became visible as the light improved.

The Northern Waterthrush in the half light of dawn

It spent about thirty minutes checking each side of the creek by the sluice, hovering over the water and perching on semi submerged roots and sticks to look for food, coming very close, right up to the concrete wall at the bottom of the slope we were stood upon. We had great views although somewhat blurry due to the dull light. It then flew up onto the top of the wall, cocked its tail, called once, a sharp tchick and then was gone, flying off into the thick brambles to our right.
In fifteen minutes it returned, calling persistently and proceeded to feed along both edges of the creek  moving further away along the water's edge towards a road that crossed the creek in the near distance. Then it was gone.The continuing dull light had precluded any decent images so I had mainly watched it in my bins.

While the bird was showing I forgot about the cold but once it was gone the numbness in my toes and fingers re-asserted itself with a vengeance. The temperature felt below zero and a bitter northeast wind blew in my face. Hunkered down in multiple layers of clothes I was still uncomfortably cold but consoled myself that it would be just a matter of time before the waterthrush returned and in better light I might get an image or two, especailly if it came as close as before.

Of course it did not work out as I hoped. Two and a half hours of sheer misery passed with not a sign of the bird and now with a crowd of in excess of sixty birders lined either side of me along the bank and overlooking the creek. The wait was attritional, no amount of stamping of feet and stuffing of gloved hands in pockets to alleviate the icy grip of the sub arctic conditions could make it better. I morosely sunk into my down jacket and scarf.

An inner voice told me I could go to a nearby cafe to warm up but then I would lose my place and worse maybe miss the waterthrush's return. I had no choice but to tough it out.Tiredness and cold do not make for pleasant companions but I stood there with my fellow birders suffering silently, no one prepared to concede to the cold.Well not just yet. 

It was 1030am and I set myself a deadline of noon. After that I would leave for home.

A lady from over the road came to complain about a white car blocking her drive and asked whoever had inconvenienced her to move it but no one stirred so maybe it was not a birder's car after all.

Slowly the sun crept round from the east and bathed half the creek in sunshine.Many had by now conceded to the weather but were replaced by just as many others. Suddenly, unexpectedly and thrillingly the waterthrush flew in to settle at the water's edge on the sunlit side of the creek.

The numbing grip of cold and boredom were instantly forgotten. It was all action now. All conversation ceased as everyone concentrated on the waterthrush. Here was the chance we had all been waiting and suffering for. Fumbling to remove my gloves, flexing my fingers to get some circulation going I instinctively searched for the camera buttons. The icy air gripping my fingertips was excruciating but there was no choice. This was it. This was my chance. This was why I had stuck it out and suffered for the previous two and a half hours.

The tiny bird hunted for food, half wading along the edges of the creek, delicately picking invisible morsels from the detritus in and around the water, using its wings to balance, its tail moving all the while slowly up and down, like a slow motion wagtail and something I recalled noticing  all those years ago when watching the waterthrush on Scilly. It looked so delicate and frail in its icy environment but did not appear to be inconvenienced in any way and full of life.

It left after fifteen minutes, calling loudly and flew once more into the nearby brambles. It was just after 11am. The bitter sweet ordeal was over and most of us departed, just about able to get joints moving and some welcome body heat returning as the blood began to once more flow in our veins. Six hours of purgatory but worth every minute.

Returning to my car, half dazed from standing immobile for so long in the cold and pleased to be moving I was accosted by a cheery lady who asked me if I had seen the bird. 

I told her I had

Its been here since last March you know

I tried to show polite interest


Yes, it's been singing in my apple tree. Such a beautiful song. There is only one of them though.

I made my escape.


  1. Great write up as usual Ewan. I was 1st to pick it up on Wednesday morning. After missing it on Monday, and standing behind the sluice,I moved round to the left on Wednesday so I could see in to the sluice. Glad I did,as I got some half descent video. I was in that cafe at 9.

  2. Excellent Dave.I saw your superb video.Best wishes

  3. Good to see you there Ewan.It was a tad chilly but Mrs Caley wasn't going to get cold!